Unfollowing the downtown eastside

“We’re living at a time when attention is the new currency. Those who insert themselves into as many channels as possible look set to capture the most value.”
-Pete Cashmore, Founder of Mashable.com

Every notable corporation, public entity, and public person in Canada uses social media to some extent. Even my mother uses Facebook (relentlessly). Most people who do not engage in social media, it seems, do so out of protest or privacy concerns; we take it for granted that those who don’t use social media avoid it on purpose. Why shouldn’t we? The United Nations declared Internet access to be a basic human right two years ago, and as a G8 country, Canada can afford to provide it.

Not everyone has access, though, and if attention really is the new currency, we may be further impoverishing our poorest citizens.

Most of us have data available on our smartphones, so we can check in any time we like with Facebook, Twitter, or news apps. These are basic acts that we do sporadically all day, every day. Are people without smartphones or readily available computer terminals really missing out?

For the uses most people get from social media, the answer is probably no – the ability to chuckle at a cat meme is a low-priority accomplishment, in evolutionary terms, anyway. But when it comes to larger social issues, social media is more and more becoming the measure we use to tell who is switched on, and who doesn’t care.

Take Idle No More, for example. The First Nations-driven movement started with a hashtag, yet in a community with a massive Aboriginal representation, many people in the Downtown Eastside likely don’t know anything about it. The goals of the movement likely directly affect them, but their voices are silenced through a disconnection from the medium in which the movement lives. For most of us, social media is a luxury, but as it becomes central to our identity as citizens we need to make sure it is open to everyone.

Editorial #19 – There’s nothing to do there, and four other reasons why Facebook still sucks

In a 2005 article, Molly Wood of cnet.com discussed the inevitable demise of social networking websites. She had good reason – this was a time when sites like Friendster.com and LinkedIn.com were on their way out, and Facebook.com hadn’t yet achieved its stranglehold on the industry. In fact, the only site at the time that was going strong was MySpace.com, which is arguably more of a music resource than a social networking site in the common definition.

She broke down her argument to five reasons: there’s nothing to do there; it takes too much time; traffic alone isn’t enough (referring to quality of visitors rather than quantity); strangers kind of suck; and we already have the Internet. She may have been dead wrong about the outcome, but just because social networking has become more ubiquitous, that doesn’t mean it has gotten any better.

To apply Wood’s argument to today’s social networking, this needs a bit of tweaking. First, make it “there’s nothing worthwhile to do there.” Second, make it “it takes up too much time.” Third, try “privacy invasion alone isn’t enough.” Fourth, how about “people from Elboya Junior High kind of suck,” and finally, “we once had real encounters with real people.”There’s nothing (worthwhile) to do there

Facebook is riddled with features. Native to the site are features like photo sharing, messages, notes, wall posts, and events. Third party applications, when introduced in 2007, brought a whole new dimension to procrastination. Now you can have a real live virtual farm, and destroy your reputation as someone who isn’t really boring.
While photo sharing is something most people agree is a positive aspect of Facebook membership, it turns social situations into Facebook photo harvests. How many times in a night, for example, do you hear the phrase “oh, that one’s going on Facebook”?
Events are a whole different story. Whereas we used to call our friends, write or print invitations, or invite people in person, these days if there isn’t a Facebook event then it might as well not be happening. And back to photos, if there is no Facebook album the day following a get-together, it might as well have never happened.

It takes up too much time
As opposed to the original complaint that “it takes too much time,” social networking now is fast and easy. To create an account takes seconds, to fill your autobiographical fantasy section takes minutes, and then the photos take care of themselves once you have some friends.
The problem is that it takes up too much time: the intermittent positive feedback offered by new messages and notifications – like gambling – are perfect conditions for generating an addiction, as noted by Danielle Pope of Memorial University’s the Muse, in an article featured on addictioninfo.org.
Compulsively checking Facebook is especially common in students, she continues, because of online assignments and holey schedules.

Privacy invasion alone isn’t enough
Users of Gmail should be familiar with the all-too-appropriate ads featured above their inbox. It is no coincidence; Gmail searches messages sent and received for keywords to generate targeted ads for both Gmail and Google Buzz.
Facebook does the same thing, by offering advertisers the opportunity to target audiences based on users’ personal information.
Unfortunately, these companies need to make money somehow, and generic banners won’t do the trick anymore. Advertisers want more targeted ads, and Facebook happens to know pretty much everything about their users.

People from Elboya Junior High kind of suck
It is safe to say that the vast majority of Facebook users have, at some point, had a friend add him or her, to whom that user has not spoken in a decade or more. The natural order of things is for people to graduate from high school and not still find out whether or not the flamboyant twelve year-old from French class actually turned out to be gay. Lame inside jokes and made-up words belong in the past, and the bonds they once formed do not transcend time or space.
There are plenty of people in the world actually inhabited by Facebook users, and connecting with those people might actually produce an interesting relationship. Cross-continentally “reconnecting” with old acquaintances is the only less productive Facebook activity than farming fake corn.
For clarification, Elboya Junior High is a wonderful institution and my classmates were admirable individuals, several of whom I wish to remain friends with; hence the disclaimer.

We once had real encounters with real people
Facebook’s most destructive power lies in its convenience. Writing on a friend’s wall is to calling him or her what calling a friend is to visiting him or her.
At least in a phone call, however, there is a back-and-forth conversation accompanied by timing and vocal inflection, which in turn allow such basic conversational tools as sarcasm or irony. These normal aspects of interpersonal exchange are often impossible in online conversation, as is the ability to convey any emotion without description.

Facebook, like it or not, is here to stay for the time being. Other sites may come and go as well; Google Buzz and Twitter being among the most well-known. To give up Facebook these days is social suicide, leaving the brave abstainer in a cold world devoid of event invitations, with the excuse that “it was on Facebook… ohhh, right.”
The only way to combat social networking is to use it on your own terms. Make it work for you, by limiting your time and sign-ins, monitoring your own usage, and avoiding the sites entirely when procrastination sets in.

References
“Five reasons social networking doesn’t work” 2005, http://www.cnet.com/4520-6033_1-6240543-1.html
“Dealing with your Facebook addiction” 2008, http://www.addictioninfo.org/articles/2171/1/Potential-Facebook-addiction/Page1.html